The Black Keys Vs. Justin Timberlake
Last week, two albums debuted that couldn't be any more different on the surface. The first album, Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds made its bow to unaminous unqualified critical praise, strange considering that most pop albums are usually disdained or ignored in "hipster/indie/[insert meaningless adjective here]" music circles. After all, Pitchfork never even bothered to review Timberlake's multi-platinum debut, Justified. Yet flash forward two years later and now the same artist formerly deemed not even worthy of being written about was declared "brilliant" in his 8.1 Pitchfork review.
Meanwhile, the website I write for, Stylus Magazine, also issued similarly effusive praise, giving the album a B+ and declaring Timberlake "the King of Pop." Clearly, no one was aware that calling Justin Timberlake the King of Pop is like calling Ray Romano the king of the sitcom. It might be true. But it says more about the dreadful state of the art form than the merits (or lack thereof) of the artist. Nonetheless, regardless of its quality (and it's really fucking bad...), Future Sex had one of the biggest debuts of the year, taking Billboard's #1 slot and moving damn near 700,000 units.
Meanwhile, that same week, the Akron blues duo, The Black Keys saw their major-label Nonesuch Records debut fall flat, with a sales performance that could only be charitably described as disappointing. Despite being able to sell out the reasonably large Avalon when I saw them last week, the Keys sold just under 10,000 copies of Magic Potion, coming in at 95th place. But the Keys couldn't take any consolation in positive album reviews either, as Pitchfork gave it a meager 6.0. To add insult to injury, the albums' reviewer took a cheap shot at the end of the piece, claiming he'd rather listen to "Blueshammer," the crappy inauthentic blues band from the brilliant comedy Ghost World. Stylus wasn't much more favorable, handing out a C+ review." To be fair, the album isn't the Keys' best (that would be this year's brilliant EP, Chulahoma), but the album is a solid 8.0 and definitely worth owning.
Justin Timberlake: Trying To Prove That By Virtue of Staring at the Floor One Can Appear "Deep"
At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm comparing the two seemingly polar opposite acts. After all, Timberlake is a former Mickey Mouse Clubber/Bop Magazine Hearthrob/ N' Sync member/corny solo Prince/Michael Jackson imitator. The Black Keys are two middle-class kids from Akron Ohio, who've paid their dues for a number of years, issuing four excellent albums on independent Fat Possum Records, a label best known for being the home to Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and of late (shudder) the Fiery Furnaces. Furthermore, the two acts' sounds couldn't be any more different. Timberlake seems like the logical conclusion of what would happen if Hall and Oates had an untalented lovechild with Barry Gibb, and said child turned out to a huge "wigger." Meanwhile, the Keys have studied faithfully at the alter of blues giants like Kimbrough, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, etc. etc.
Yet upon closer inspection, the two acts have one crucial similarity that binds them, in that they are both white men plying their trade in a black art form. Of course, the debate over white boys playing the blues is a tired one. For the four of you who aren't aware, white Englishmen during the 1960's essentially co-opted the American blues sound, in the process reviving the dying art form. Acts like Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and Led Zep made careers based on this electrified blues sound. Not to mention crackers like Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield and John Mayall who all recorded seminal albums during the period. Hell, even Pink Floyd owes its names to two ancient Southern bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
Unquestionably, the development was a good thing for music. Once forgotten bluesmen like Son House and Robert Johnson were dusted off and elevated to the legendary status that they now receive. Additonally, black performers like BB King, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf saw their careers resucitated and managed to make large sums of money, something that had previously eluded him. In fact, the only downside I can see about this second wind of the Blues is the career of John Mayer.
Howlin' Wolf: On Par With Wolf Parade, Thomas Wolf and Teen Wolf
But while there is a storied history of white men respectfully doing their take on the blues, there is no such precedent for what Timberlake is doing. Indeed, contemporary white R&B stars are few and far between. With the exception of the not-so-creatively monikered Jon B., there haven't any white R&B stars in a long time. Well, unless you count one of the dudes in All-4-One. I'm pretty sure, one of them was a honky. So in theory, Justin Timberlake is ground-breaking. Sort of.
Shockingly, Timberlake managed to succeed in making the transition from Boy Band joke to mainstream pop superstar joke. The reason for Timberlake's success (while other boy-banders have been forced to announce their homosexuality to stay in the limelight) is simple: when white guys do a black art form people are loathe to respect them until their credibility is proved, This is why in the 60's guys like Clapton and the Rolling Stones often played with the blues legends of the past, even going as far to cut records with them (see their excellent collaboration with Wolf : The London Sessions.) This is why Eminem needed Dr. Dre's street cred to launch a viable career as a white rapper. And of course, Timberlake is no different. If not for collaborators like Timbaland and Pharell Williams, Timberlake would've been written off as an afterthought of the boy-band era, rather than as the new King of Pop.
"Hey Timbaland, now that we've made Timberlake a star, we need a new challenge...I wonder what Vanilla Ice is up to?"Unlike Timberlake, the Black Keys weren't created in a laboratory by Jive Records and/or the guy who used to rap with a partner idiotically named Magoo. They came up the old-fashioned way, by taking risks, by being creative and most importantly, by being prodigiously talented at music. Unlike Timberlake, who has by all standards only a decent voice, the Keys' lead singer Dan Auerbach sings in a bruised and soulfoul blues caterwaul. The first time I heard the Keys, I was convinced that they were an old Missippi blues act recently discovered from some old cluttered Alan Lomax archive. Rather than dance and hide themselves in an array of pre-packaged sonics, the Keys wrap their songs in gritty and blistering guitar licks, in simply written but effective lyrics, and in their art that obviously means so much to them. Live, they are nothing short of a revelation, as Auerbach draws from a grab-bag of vicious guitar riffs both haunting and savagely brutal. Patrick Carney pounds the drums with a primal fury that hasn't been seen since John Bonham or Keith Moon. He may be the best drummer in rock music today.
In contrast, Justin Timberlake sings lewd come-ons in an falsetto voice clearly lifted from Michael Jackson, with lyrics probably written by someone else, with the production handled by someone with true talent. The differences between the Keys and Timberlake are as stark as those of the artist and the apprentice. While the Keys may borrow the simple song structures of their blues forefathers, they have breathed new life into a dying art form, carrying on the legacy of not just Robert Johnson, Junior Kimbrough and Howlin Wolf, but later inheritors of the mantle such as Clapton, Bloomfield and Keith Richards. Their last album might not be perfect, but it's always entertaining and the perfect thing to put on if you're getting drunk and rowdy. It's the kind of music that bar jukeboxes were made for.
Dan Auerbach on Guitar: The Next Best Thing to a Young Eric Clapton
But if the Black Keys make transcendent bar rock, Justin Timberlake's latest album is the soundtrack to a poorly executed date rape. As the lyrics to "Sexy Back" read: Dirty Babe/You see these shackles baby I'm your slave/I'll let you whip me if I misbehave/It's just that no one makes me feel that way."
Rimbaud couldn't have said better. Ah Romance.
Essentially, the critics have been raving about an R-rated N' Sync CD produced by Timbaland. Yet because Pharrell and Timbaland have sanctioned this R&B CD that neither has rhythm nor blues, critics have opted to duck the authenticity question that hangs over Timberlake. The fact that he's basically doing an impression of a black man.
But when push comes to shove, it's not about doing an impression or not doing an impression. One can't argue that Auerbach isn't trying to sound like an old blues man. He is. It's just he's so prodigiously talented that he manages to write catchy blues songs that you've always heard even if you haven't. When their career finally ends, The Black Keys' will have managed to add a new chapter onto the end of a book that everybody had already thought had been completed.
The Poster Hanging Up In The Pitchfork Offices
And as for Timberlake, I'm not worried about his career. He's the perfect icon for our times, a copy-cat like a James Frey in his theft of Michael Jackson and Prince's styles, reliant on illicit performance-enhancing substances (Timbaland productions) like Barry Bonds and quite frankly, his disgusting and vulgar song lyrics reflect a dumbing down of pop standards. Whereas once, pop songs made a pretense of talking about "true love" and all that bubblegum junk. All that's needed today is a few lines about being a slave and being whipped, and some Timbaland beats and its enough to get the music critics of America and 700,000 other souls into a feeding frenzy, despite the fact that the album's bloated and grating sonics could've been used to torture people at Abu Ghraib.
So maybe it's fitting that the Black Keys album will be barely heard and sorely underrated, while Timberlake assumes his new throne as the King of Pop. Maybe he is the King of Pop. If anything, he's an icon for our times, while the Keys are a throwback to a rapidly disappearing world. It's too bad. If that's the case, you can count me out.
Download--The Black Keys: "Strange Desire," from Magic Potion
Download--The Black Keys: "Work Me" from Chulahoma